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George Bahamonde

 

 

 
 
   
   
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George Bahamonde, second from left, stands next to the author, David E. Graham. (Courtesy: Fred Borch).

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It was the fall of 1974, and I was teaching a class in International Law to the Advance Course—now, the Graduate Course. As was the case for all U.S. Army The Judge Advocate General’s School courses at the time, the class took place in Clark Hall—the old University of Virginia Law School. A few minutes into my instruction, the door opened in the rear of the room, a man entered, stood there for a moment, and then took a seat in the back row. He folded his arms, crossed his legs, and listened intently for the remainder of the hour. As the class ended and the students departed, this gentleman remained. When the room had cleared, he approached me, held out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m George Bahamonde.” I shook his hand and he remarked, “I’m with the International Affairs Division in the U.S. Army Europe Office of the Judge Advocate (USAREUR OJA) in Heidelberg. You should come work with me.” And that was how I met George. Little did I know at the time what a defining moment in my professional career that encounter would become. Accordingly, what follows is a highly personalized tribute to a singular man.

George Bahamonde was a New Jersey native, who attended Columbia Law School. In my conversations with him, he would often make references to Lou Henkin, the noted legal scholar and Columbia Law professor. “Brilliant guy,” he would say. “I learned so much from him.” Many years later, when making a presentation at the Aspen Institute, I had the privilege of meeting Professor Henkin. There, I relayed to him George’s oft-stated admiration. And, of course, I took pleasure in later letting George know of this encounter.

After graduation from law school, George served as an enlisted Soldier in Europe in the 1960s—a not unusual occurrence during this Vietnam era—and was discharged in France, where he took a position as an Army Civilian attorney with U.S. Forces stationed at Fontainebleau. When Charles De Gaulle later forced North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces from France, George was tasked with handling all legal issues associated with terminating U.S. Army operations in that country. He worked with the Military Liquidation Section at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. It was there that that he met Ada, an embassy employee who would become the love of his life.

As U.S. Army European military operations moved from France to Campbell Barracks, Heidelberg, Germany, so did George. Working in the International Affairs Division (IAD), in the USAREUR OJA, he assumed the position of Opinions Branch Chief in the late 1960s. It was in this capacity that he began establishing his reputation as an indispensable source of expertise and advice on all legal matters pertaining to any aspect of U.S. Army operations in Germany and the other NATO-contributing countries with troop presence throughout Europe, known as Sending States (United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, and Netherlands). Colonel (Ret.) Charlie White, who was serving as the IAD Chief at the time, tells of George (who had become known by those close to him as “the Baha”) having twenty-one safes of classified materials and opinions in his office—and opening each safe—with a different combination, each morning, by memory. All the while, he was traveling by train each Friday afternoon from Heidelberg to Paris, to be with Ada, returning on Sunday evening.

As U.S. operations in Vietnam drew to a close, the then-The Judge Advocate General (TJAG), Major General (MG) George Prugh—who had benefitted from George’s advice when serving as the USAREUR Judge Advocate (JA)—recalled that George had successfully “turned off the lights” for U.S. Army operations in France. Accordingly, adding credence to the adage of no good deed going unpunished, MG Prugh dispatched George to Saigon in January 1973, tasking him with closing down legal operations at U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, and U.S. Army Republic of Vietnam. Under chaotic conditions—and facing an end-of-January departure deadline mandated by the Paris Peace Accords—to no one’s surprise, George again came through.

With my arrival in Heidelberg the summer of 1975, my exposure to the now legendary Bahamonde wisdom, management style, and wit began. Settling in on my first day, still recovering from jet lag, George’s voice rang out. As I entered his office, he looked up, and, with that smile on his face that I came to learn meant that he was particularly pleased with the mission he was about to assign, he said “All squared away?” Then, before I could respond, “Good. The DCINC (the Deputy Commander in Chief of USAREUR) has questions about these Geneva Protocols they’ve been negotiating—what we now know as the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. You need to go provide him with answers.” I paused for a moment, and then, looking at him with a mixture of disbelief and mild panic, I said, “George, this is my first day in Heidelberg. I don’t even know how to find the DCINC’s office. Are you sure?” This admittedly tepid response resulted in a characteristic Bahamonde gesture. He slowly removed his glasses, tossed them on his desk, leaned back in his chair and said:

“Did you not travel all over Southeast Asia with TJAG (MG Prugh) this past summer, discussing these Protocols with various countries?”

I mumbled a “Yes.”

“Did you not just recently write a law review article about these very Protocols?”

“I did.”

“Then, tell me; who do you think is better qualified in this office to speak to the DCINC’s concerns? Go answer his questions. Someone will tell you how to find him.”

This encounter was my introduction to Bahamonde Management 101. He had the ability to know well—and call upon—the strengths of every individual in his office. In doing so, he prepared his young attorneys for success. His trust in their abilities was both evident and transparent. He empowered his captains. And, in response, these attorneys doubled down in their efforts to justify the trust and responsibilities he afforded them. Most importantly, George never failed to stand behind the actions and decisions of those who worked for him, even in those inevitable cases when we made mistakes. We never doubted that he would have our backs.

I quickly came to appreciate that the widely held respect for George’s expertise in all matters related to the NATO status of forces agreements and the German Supplementary Agreement was well earned. Indeed, his knowledge was encyclopedic in nature. The opinions on such subjects issued by the office were filed under each article of the supplementary agreement to which a particular topic related. A controversy would arise; a request for an opinion would be made; and George would note on the assignment slip: “Look under Article 53. There should be several opinions dealing with essentially this same subject, around the 1969 and 1974 timeframes.” True enough, there they were. He had an amazing recall of issues and the relevant law. New matters did arise, of course—or new twists on previously addressed subjects. When this occurred, nothing pleased George more than one of his captains approaching him with a “novel” idea on how a provision of the supplementary agreement could be interpreted so as to benefit U.S forces and other Sending States. These ideas seldom proved to be workable, or novel; but, on that rare occasion when they did, George took a special interest in assisting a young attorney in pursuing their newly conceived approach. As was the case when any of his attorneys gained a small victory for the office, he had already paid a visit to the General to ensure that the credit for the success achieved went directly, and exclusively, to the individual concerned.

One of George’s seldom noted attributes was the fact that he was a master wordsmith, capable of composing just the right phrase, reducing complex legal arguments to easily understood paragraphs. Yet, his was not a simplistic writing style. “I don’t care if you use the passive voice, if it best fits the narrative. Don’t shy away from a compound subjunctive sentence, if it appropriately conveys the point you’re trying to make.” And, yes, he really could school you on dangling participles and split infinitives. I had drafts returned that looked as if an entire bottle of ink had been spilled on my efforts. Well, do I remember his patience and guidance during the many days I spent formulating the USAREUR Directive implementing the Case Act—legislation mandating stringent accountability in the U.S. negotiation of international agreements. He honed my writing skills immeasurably.

In 1976, to the great benefit of U.S. Army forces stationed throughout the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), as well as to that of the other U.S. Services and the Sending States, George was made the Special Assistant to the USAREUR JA. With this significant expansion of his portfolio of responsibilities, he was now in a position to bring his combination of analytical legal skills, negotiating savvy—and oft-displayed—common sense to a wide array of U.S. defense concerns. He had the practiced ability to assess issues through the eyes of a commander, always weighing how a legal position would impact the ability of that commander and his troops to successfully accomplish their assigned missions. Recall that, unlike today, with its large number of forces present in the FRG and elsewhere in Europe and rather than U.S. European Command, USAREUR was the dominant U.S. defense player. This meant that a legal position taken by USAREUR on any given issue became that adopted, almost uniformly, by the other U.S. Services and Sending States operating within the FRG and elsewhere in the region. And George was always at the forefront of crafting these positions. Not only was he the much sought-after counselor to every USAREUR staff directorate, he regularly served as such for the other Services’ legal offices and those of the Sending States. When these entities assembled for their bi-annual Sending States meetings, I witnessed time and again the persuasive power of George’s intellect and the respect afforded him by the others assembled. He was fluent in French, and, although he always professed otherwise, he also spoke and read German—a talent he used to great advantage in bi-lateral negotiations with unsuspecting German officials.

The benefits that younger attorneys derived from time spent with George were not exclusively related to the development of our legal skills. He had his own way of both exercising and demonstrating what it meant to lead. I can remember the time when, hearing someone loudly berating our young secretary, each of us made our way to her workstation. George was there before us, staring down a lieutenant colonel from another staff directorate who had been haranguing the young woman for failing, through no fault of her own, to present paperwork he was seeking. George pointed a finger at the lieutenant colonel: “Get out of this office. No, wait; get out of this entire building, and don’t come back.” Then, spotting his somewhat stunned captains: “Nothing to see here; get back to work.” George never failed to protect his own.

My most memorable Bahamonde lesson in leadership, however, occurred following a tongue-lashing administered by a senior colonel to a lieutenant colonel Division Chief, one of many that he had endured over several months. This time, however, the incident occurred not behind closed doors, but in the main hallway for all to hear. Moments later, George assembled his attorneys in his office. “Okay, what you just heard is simply unacceptable. When you become supervisors, in or out of the Army, I hope you understand that one of your fundamental responsibilities as a leader is to treat all who work for you with respect. Never denigrate or humiliate your subordinates. To do so is much more a reflection on your lack of personal discipline than it is on the shortcomings of someone you mistreat.” George never failed to practice this admonition. Indeed, he was years ahead of the times in terms of both racial and gender equality.

Ada, George’s great love, and unabashed Francophile, had moved from Paris to Heidelberg following their marriage in the early 1970s. They continued to own an apartment in Paris, however, and graciously shared this, on occasion, with young USAREUR OJA couples who were attempting to see the “City of Lights” on a captain’s salary. My wife and I were recipients of this generosity on more than one occasion, with Ada eagerly leading us from one flea market to another—once ending the day at a performance by the London Royal Shakespeare Company. Thanks to Ada and George, we and others collected memories that have lasted us our lifetimes.

George was not without his special brand of humor—often acerbic, but never cruel. As one worked with him and came to understand this, you realized that he also appreciated a well-placed retort aimed at him. These exchanges made working with him particularly enjoyable. On one occasion, however, my fellow captains feared that I had crossed the proverbial line. George was a runner—jogging essentially every day. This entailed him leaving Campbell Barracks—often running to a distant U.S. housing area and back. Upon returning to the Barracks, he would—of course—be required to present his identification to gain re-entry. Denied entry, he instructed the guard to call his office, whereupon someone would confirm his identity and the fact that he did indeed work there. The phone rang, and I answered. The guard explained that a gentleman was at the front gate, a George Bahamonde, who said that he worked in the USAREUR OJA. He had no identification, however. Could I confirm his identification? Instantly, I realized that this situation presented me with an opportunity that could not be resisted. As my office cohorts listened curiously, I asked the guard: “What did this fellow say his name was?” I heard the guard query George: “Sir, you did say your name was Bahamonde, right?” Then, to me. “Sir, yes, his name is Bahamonde.” “Bahamonde, Bahamonde,” I said to the guard. “How does he spell that?” The guard was about to relay this question when George suddenly realized what was happening. “Who are you speaking with, Sergeant? Is that Graham? Give me that phone!” At which point, I hastily said, “Oh, that Bahamonde. Sure, Sarge, he works here,” and quickly hung up. As I did so, my office mates were staring at me with a combination of disbelief and regret for the fate that they were certain was to befall me. In just minutes, the door at the end of the hall swung open, and George, still in his running clothes, strode down the corridor, yelling, “Graham, Graham; where are you Graham?” At this point, people on both sides of the hall were exiting their offices. I stepped into the corridor, as George approached. “Are you looking for me, George?” He rushed up with a scowl on his face, pointed his finger in my chest, and then, transitioning into a broad smile, simply said, “Good one!”

George toiled at USAREUR OJA for thirty-five years, twenty-six of those as the Special Assistant to the USAREUR JA. As such, he was the principal architect of U.S. Army legal policy for not only Germany, but for the entire European region. He is the single individual most responsible for preserving and enhancing the interests of Army forces stationed throughout this critical area of the world, a legacy that continues to this day. He counseled Generals, Ambassadors, and, very importantly, young captains and majors—guiding all of them, shaping their thinking, and, very often, saving them from themselves. He was an extraordinary attorney, public servant, and personality. And, while I managed to convince him to grudgingly participate in Fred Borch’s Oral History Program at the Legal Center and School, in an effort to capture his many accomplishments, he characteristically proceeded to minimize each of his remarkable achievements.

After well over three decades of service, George retired in 2002. He lost Ada in 2017. On 31 March 2020, at the age of eighty-six, we lost George. He is buried next to Ada at the Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. As I’ve thought back over the outsized influence that George had on my career, I have repeatedly recalled what he so often said many years ago of Professor Lou Henkin. “He was a brilliant guy. I learned so much from him.” Back at you George. You were the sage; you were the guru; you were, indeed, “the Baha.” Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with, and to call you a friend, will forever be in your debt. As will the nation you served. TAL